Although Rudolph Valentino was regarded during his lifetime as a capable actor, perhaps more lasting is his legacy as a popular icon. The Latin seductor, the tango dancer, the impassioned sheik have all become indelibly associated with his image as a star. Born in 1895 in Castellaneta in Southern Italy, his full name was Rodolfo Alfonzo Raffaelo Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguolla. His father, Giovanni Guglielmi, was a retired captain of the Royal Italian Cavalry and a bacteriologist. His mother Beatrice was the daughter of the president of an engineering company. As a young man, Valentino attended a military school and applied to the Government Naval Academy but was rejected when he failed the physical examination. He then attended the Royal School of Agriculture before emigrating to the United States in 1913.
In New York Valentino worked a variety of jobs, from gardener to dancer (some would say gigolo) at Maxim's. Developing a reputation as a dancer, he performed with Bonnie Glass in clubs and on the vaudeville circuit under the name of Signor Rodolfo. In 1916, not long after testifying as a witness in the divorce trial of Bianca De Saulles, he was charged with "white slavery"; it has been speculated that Bianca De Saulles' husband Jack was behind the charges. Although he was acquitted, Valentino left New York for California.
Valentino worked his way into the film industry gradually, playing bit parts and later more substantial roles such as the oily count in Married Virgin (1918), the romantic lead opposite Carmel Myers in All Night (1918), the blackmailing novelist in Stolen Moments (1920), and the son of a millionaire in Delicious Little Devil(1919). Like the majority of films from the silent era, many of Valentino's pictures are lost - not only several early films, but even major productions shot after he was already established as a star, including The Uncharted Seas (1921), The Young Rajah (1922) and A Sainted Devil (1924). No prints of most of these films are known to survive; we have only written accounts and production stills to give us some idea what they were like. However, in recent years, a few Valentino features have resurfaced and been restored when existing elements were available such as Moran of the Lady Letty (1922), the above mentioned The Young Rajahand most importantly, Beyond the Rocks (1922), which paired Valentino with the great Gloria Swanson.
Valentino's first marriage was a notorious fiasco, even by Hollywood standards. In October of 1919 he met Jean Acker, an aspiring actress who was a protegee of Alla Nazimova, the famed Russian actress. Valentino and Acker married in November of that year, but the marriage remained unconsummated. Acker literally locked him out of their lodgings and refused to speak with him or respond to his letters. By December they were formally separated, though Acker didn't file for divorce until 1921. According to their mutual friend Paul Ivano, Acker was a lesbian, like many women in Nazimova's circle. In spite of everything, Valentino remained on good terms with her and even permitted her to use the name of "Mrs. Rudolph Valentino" after the divorce.
The breakthrough film for Valentino was Rex Ingram's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). The World War I melodrama, based on the bestselling novel by Vicente Blasco-Ibanez, was a pet project of June Mathis, a screenwriter at Metro Pictures. Mathis lobbied to give Valentino the key part of Julio Desnoyers, the young heir to an Argentinean cattle baron who seduces a married woman but later proves his valor in battle. The famous tango scene, in which Valentino got to show off his formidable skills as a dancer, helped catapult him into stardom, but he also attracted critical attention for his skills as an actor. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse became one of the greatest financial and artistic successes of the silent era, earning the director Rex Ingram comparisons to D. W. Griffith. The challenge of Valentino's subsequent career was not so much to gain public recognition as to find projects which helped him fulfill the promise shown in this film. June Mathis, who played an instrumental role in Valentino's rise to stardom, scripted several of Valentino's subsequent projects: The Conquering Power (1921), Camille (1921), Blood and Sand (1922) and The Young Rajah. Today she is also notorious as the brain behind the editing of Stroheim's Greed (1924) down to the 10-reel version which survives to this day.
Valentino's next major project was Camille, a modernized version of La Dame aux Camelias, the novel and play by Alexandre Dumas, starring the great Nazimova as Marguerite Gauthier. While his performance here was well received, the film meant perhaps even more to him on a personal level than his immediate career. Valentino fell in love with the set designer, Natacha Rambova, one of Nazimova's associates; their relationship was complicated by the fact that the divorce from Valentino's first wife wasn't finalized. Rambova, born Winifred Kimball Shaughnessay in Salt Lake City, was the stepdaughter of a cosmetics magnate. Working with the Imperial Russian Ballet and changing her name to the Russian-sounding Natacha Rambova, she earned a reputation as an accomplished costume and set designer. She was also noteworthy for her interest in Theosophy and spiritism; under her influence Valentino dabbled in supernatural phenomena and attended seances.
After Camille Valentino worked once more with Rex Ingram on The Conquering Power, a free adaptation of Honore de Balzac's novel Eugenie Grandet. The film, including Valentino's performance, was praised by the critics but didn't have nearly as much impact on the popular imagination as his next film, which he made with Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount, The Sheik (1921). Based on a scandalous novel about a torrid love affair between an English noblewoman and an Arabian sheik, the film created an indelible image of "The Great Lover" with wild eyes and flaring nostrils. Subsequent Paramount projects included Blood and Sand, based on another Blasco-Ibanez novel, and The Young Rajah. Impatient for the divorce with Jean Acker to come through, Valentino and Rambova married in Mexico in May of 1922. Upon returning to Los Angeles, he was promptly charged with bigamy and fined $10,000. The couple got married again a year later, after the required period under California law had elapsed. Rambova began to assert increasing influence over every aspect of Valentino's career, from his contract negotiations to his costumes.
Citing low pay (especially considering the enormous success of his films) and unfair terms relative to other stars of the era, Valentino broke his contract with Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount; in retaliation, the studio sued for an injunction barring Valentino from appearing in films altogether until the period of the contract was finished. His lengthy affidavit scandalized the film industry due to its public airing of the studios' monopolistic control over exhibitors through the practice of block booking, meaning that exhibitors, as part of their contracts with studios, were required to book all of a studio's product rather than select films individually. Nonetheless, the injunction stood and for almost a year Valentino was unable to make pictures. During the hiatus, he and his wife Natacha embarked on a wildly successful dance tour across the country to promote Mineralava Beauty Clay; they danced the tango, of course. He also published a bestselling collection of poetry entitled Day Dreams. Remarkably, Paramount reestablished contact with him and offered him a new contract for $7,500 a week.
While Valentino's next features - Monseiur Beaucaire (1924) and Cobra (1925) - are beautifully mounted productions (closely supervised by his wife Natacha), they failed to attract the audience of his earlier features and were criticized for presenting Valentino in an overly dandified, effete light. When he signed a new contract with Joseph Schenck of United Artists, one of the conditions demanded by the studio was that his wife not be allowed on the set or contribute in any way to the productions. The couple drifted apart and publicly announced a "marital vacation." Rambova moved to Paris and filed suit for divorce, which was granted in January of 1926.
The Eagle (1925), Valentino's first United Artists production, successfully recast the actor as an athletic action hero and helped restore his faltering popularity; it also gave him the opportunity to display his knack for comedy. His last film, The Son of the Sheik (1926), a sequel to the 1921 hit, similarly attracted a large audience, cementing his comeback. During that time he met the actress Pola Negri and the two struck up a romance; she later claimed that the two had been engaged to become married. In mid-August, less than a month after the film's premiere, Valentino collapsed and was hospitalized with a perforated ulcer. The operation proved unsuccessful and he passed away on August 23, 1926.
Valentino's death became the stuff of legend. To quote Alice Terry, leading lady in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, "The biggest thing Valentino ever did was to die." While his body lay in state at Campbell's Funeral Parlour in New York City, a massive crowed of onlookers rushed in, causing extensive damage to the viewing room. As many as 100 people were injured in the riot that erupted afterwards. It has been estimated that from 80,000 to 100,000 people surrounded the building. After the funeral in New York, which was held at St. Malachi's, his body was transported by train to California for a second service, this time with Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin among the pallbearers. While there have been many romantic leading men since Valentino, arguably none has had such a profound impact on American popular culture.